Let’s consider the traditional upfront week. Are its days numbered? If not, they ought to be. Almost everything about it has become a great big expensive waste of time. The crush of outsize events has made the week more of a grueling marathon than a valuable business event. And to what end? Thanks to digital technology and social media, advertisers already know what they’re dealing with before the week begins. Reporters and bloggers are already on top of each network’s new schedule and programming announcements before they enter any venue. As I write this column on Thursday, in fact, I already have full details about the new series NBC, Fox and The CW have picked up for next season, and I know which shows on its current schedule CBS is going to renew. (That would be most of them.)
And then, of course, there is the exasperating number of new programs and programming moves introduced by broadcasters throughout the week that inevitably crash and burn. Remember last year’s upfront, when the most-talked-about new show was a spectacularly ill-conceived NBC comedy titled “Animal Practice,” and the most-talked-about new stars of the upcoming season were Crystal, the simian star of that show, and Britney Spears, who was being hauled in to salvage Fox’s “The X Factor?” Enough said.
Look, if the madness of upfront week is something the networks feel they must endure to please the talent involved with their shows, along with the representation and management communities, so be it. But they are mistaken if they think this is the only way to impress media buyers and planners and television reporters and critics. Changes are already happening. It’s worth noting that NBC, ABC and The CW no longer have post-presentation parties. It’s worth remembering that NBC boldly attempted to extract itself from upfront week several years ago, only to be roundly (and wrongly) criticized. And consider this: Fox on Monday will for the first time attempt to draw the viewing public into its upfront extravaganza with something called the Fox FanFront, which could expand the traditional presentation into a bigger, better and more profitable investment.
Certainly new ideas are called for, because the whole upfront celebration thing suddenly seems as outdated and irrelevant as the quarterly network sweeps. This sentiment is not exclusively reserved for broadcast. In fact, at almost every cable upfront event I have been to this year, as well as certain business meetings that had nothing to do with it, top network executives have asked me if I thought all that partying had any real value beyond offering nights out to harried young media planners who might otherwise be chained to their desks until the wee hours as usual.
In general, I told these executives that I couldn’t speak for the advertising community, only to be told in turn that few if any “decision-makers” come to the parties anymore. I did suggest that any kind of network event that allows the press unfettered access to executives and talent still has great value, even in the age of digital communication.
Looking at the massive crowd at one event of relatively young people merrily consuming alcohol and whatever food was at hand, one executive quietly confided, “We call them the shrimp-eaters.”
Well, the shrimp-eaters will be out in force next week, busily focusing on their mobile devices during all those presentations and gobbling up everything in sight at the parties. But who will benefit from it all? Certainly not the broadcasters, who could handily get their messages out via press announcements, social media communication, links to sites where clips from new fall programs may be screened, and packages of promotional DVDs. Come to think of it, the broadcasters already take full advantage of all those things, often before their events begin.
The Spanish-language networks, which are increasingly powerful competitors to the traditional broadcasters, can definitely benefit from the exposure that upfront events bring, but I don’t understand why they feel the need to occupy every available space during an already punishing few days. Wouldn’t their important messages stand out to greater effect outside of upfront week? The same is true of the cable networks and cable network groups that have seen fit to wedge themselves into the week’s all-consuming craziness: ESPN, Turner Networks and USA Network. I get that they want to be considered viable and valuable alternatives to the traditional broadcasters, but I don’t think they need to stand next to them in order to get that message across. FX gets great results renting New York’s Lucky Strike Lanes every March and letting agency people and reporters drink beer, eat hot dogs and bowl with its executives and the casts of its shows.
The sad fact is, most of the upfront parties and events could probably disappear next year and it would be business as usual. This is true of broadcast and cable. ABC Family, which in 2012 mounted a spectacular upfront lunch featuring most of its series talent at one of Manhattan’s most impressive restaurants, had no event of any kind this year and doesn’t seem to be suffering for it. Instead, ABC Family went with personalized agency meetings, which I’m told can do more to boost a network’s business than outsize events. Is that the wave of the future? It probably should be.